Two weeks ago I met a man who was living in an abandoned shipping container in a neighborhood he described as “not very safe”. He explained to me that, in addition to the sound of regular gunshots, it was also much colder in there than it was outside. Every night he has to make sure no one can get in and sneak up on him – or lock him in from the outside. The very idea of this man’s difficult existence shook me and I shared it on my Facebook page that evening. His situation reinforced for me just how important it is that we share these stories and let people know more about the lives of our neighbors who are experiencing homelessness. More than that – we have to do something about this.
For more than 30 years Bridges has taken to the streets to provide for the urgent needs of people who are experiencing homelessness. First in New York City, and eventually in both Newark and Irvington. On Fridays we also open the doors of our Summit office to our neighbors in need. These are folks for whom a place they can shower and access fresh, clean clothes, is a gift. Yes, even in Summit. People are experiencing homelessness in OUR communities. This is not a situation which exists “over there”…it’s here. But it shouldn’t be.
Our Street Outreach Runs are an essential first step in connecting with people who have been chronically homeless. The Runs also allow us to engage thousands of volunteers each year in the important work of conducting this outreach. At the beginning, the Run was more about the relationships being formed than the number of Brown Bag Lunches distributed. Three decades into the future we evolve to streamline the distribution process for the ever-growing crowds of people in need. We count men and women, we count toiletry kits, we count Brown Bag Lunches, and we distribute them in an assembly line fashion. While that kind of operational evolution is important to our growth, increasingly, we’re focused on the connections made between volunteers and staff alike, and the people experiencing homelessness. Bridges’ Founders, Geoff & Ginger Worden likened handing a lunch to a person experiencing homelessness to bringing a bottle of wine to their neighbor’s house. For them it was about creating community and engaging with people on a human level. Today we’re focused on bringing those engagements to the forefront of why we take to the streets each week. The purpose is not only to provide food and other essentials – the purpose is also to create connections. These connections lead to people being helped out of homelessness, so we will continue to cultivate them.
At our Newark office, called Project Connect, we’re able to provide access to showers, to healthcare, and to Case Management. Often the first thing our team needs to help with is ID, or other official documentation. From the ID we’re able to help people with their income, whether that be from an entitlement program, such as SSI (due to a disability), or through job training and subsequent employment. Sometimes we’re able to prevent a family from becoming homeless by paying their back rent or utilities. Most recently we connected 10 clients, all of whom happened to be women, with permanent housing. Without adding staff we have spent more than 2,500 hours walking these women through the process, accompanying them to medical appointments, connecting them with landlords, with furniture (from our friend Kim Sleeman @ The Warehouse!), and we will continue to work with each of them in our endeavor to ensure they are permanently housed.
The biggest undertaking yet, is our effort to change the very systems which enable people to fall through every crack and to be left with nothing but the streets as a place to sleep. Through Built For Zero communities are ending homelessness. You read that right – ending homelessness. This data-driven process facilitates an evolution of the systems in place so that each and every person is accounted for on a shared platform and prioritized for housing solutions. Person by person, communities – including right here in New Jersey – are reaching functional zero for Veteran homelessness and for chronic homelessness. Now Bridges is leading the Built For Zero initiative with Essex County and the City of Newark. This work is of the highest order, for it makes all other downstream efforts more successful: the job training, the healthcare interventions, the education – everything works better when people have a home. And we’re going to work endlessly to ensure that no one is sleeping in an abandoned shipping container. Tiny homes made from the same materials? Maybe.
Thank you for being part of this movement. Donate to support our efforts to end homelessness.
Richard J. Uniacke
PS – for more information, I recommend Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast, #solvable. The very first episode is “Homelessness is #solvable”. Check it out here.